When installing a major software update like macOS Big Sur, you have the choice to start over from scratch with a fresh copy – as if you've purchased a brand new computer for the first time – or to simply install as usual, allowing you to continue working with the same settings and apps you've always had. Deciding which step to take is a personal one, but there are definitely benefits to both.
Why a clean install of macOS Big Sur is good
It's like moving to a new house, with a fresh coat of paint and new flooring. Everything is new and you get to decide where to put the furniture. You can make your new home similar to your old one or completely redesign your living space.
It gives you the opportunity to rid your Mac of unnecessary bloat. All of those apps you tried once but decided you don't like? Gone. All of those downloads you never did anything with? Erased. Everything is clean and fresh and ready for a new start.
Thanks to services like Dropbox and iCloud, you can easily track down files and documents that you've kept backed up in the cloud. Any apps you previously downloaded on Mac can be redownloaded right from the Mac App Store. Even third-party, non-Mac App Store apps usually have a method to confirm a previous purchase (like a license download code). So, even though your apps may not be on your cleanly-installed Mac, you can usually get them back without much effort.
You'll need a level of patience and some extra time if you do a clean install of macOS Big Sur. At first, you'll have to reenter passwords in Mail, sign back into iCloud and readjust your settings, redownload pictures in the Photos app (or redownload iCloud versions of them if you store the originals somewhere else), and a lot of other small, but time-consuming things. Remember, when you do a clean install, you are starting from scratch.
If you have the patience and some free time, a clean installation of macOS Big Sur can be somewhat cathartic in its own right. It feels good to have a fresh start.
Why a standard installation of macOS Big Sur is good
A clean install also means you lose everything. Similar to moving to a new house, there may have been a box in the garage that you never opened, but once you move, if you didn't take it with you, it's gone. Trying to figure out what happened to it could take a long time.
All of the tweaks and adjustments you've made over the years to your computer will be gone. Sound alerts, display options, keyboard settings – all of it will be reset to factory settings.
That's why restoring from a backup might be the best choice for you.
When you download and install macOS Big Sur without starting from scratch, all of your apps, settings, files, and documents will be in the exact same spot that they were before. You will already be signed in to all of your apps and you won't have to redownload pictures from iCloud.
It is much faster to go from installation to being productive again when all of your apps and files are right where you left them.
It's like coming home late at night, in the dark. If you know where your bed is, your head will hit the pillow without you even having to think about it. If your furniture was all rearranged, you'd have to turn on the lights to see where you are going.
If you are too busy to spend time re-downloading apps and retweaking your system settings, a standard installation makes more sense than starting from scratch.
Which one is better?
I've done both. I usually install macOS updates from scratch on my MacBook Pro and install from a backup on my iMac. While I like that my MBP is clean (it feels like running a brand new computer), I don't like that I have to download every app that I need for work. Missing apps like 1Password and Dropbox immediately take me out of the game and drag my productivity to a crawl until I have what I need again.
It really is nice to have a clean installation on your computer, but if you are like me, it isn't worth the hassle.
That being said, if you mainly use your computer for browsing the internet, checking mail, or other non-work heavy activities, you might want to try a clean install.
In the market?
If you're looking for a new Mac, check out our list of our favorite MacBook models of the year.
What do you think?
What have you done previously? Do you usually do a clean install or standard installation? What are your plans for macOS Big Sur?
Updated November 2020: Updated for macOS Big Sur.
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Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books. If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).